President Barack Obama's choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that health care reform would be a key priority in coming years.
Kathleen Sebelius, who is the Democratic Governor of Kansas and previously served as the state insurance commissioner, said she would bring her experience to efforts to expand health coverage throughout the nation.
Health care costs are crushing families, businesses, and government budgets, Sebelius said in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee. Since 2000, health insurance premiums have almost doubled and an additional 9 million Americans have become uninsured.
She added, We have by far the most expensive health system in the world. We spend 50 percent more per person than the next most costly nation. Americans spend more on health care than housing or food. General Motors spends more on health care than steel.
Noting that rising health care costs are also contributing to the current economic crisis by pushing up costs for state and federal budgets, Sebelius said the government must make fixing the system a priority.
I share the President's conviction that 'health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.' Inaction is not an option, she said. The status quo is unacceptable, and unsustainable.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the panel, stressed the responsibilities of the post Sebelius hopes to assume.
The Secretary of Health and Human Services has a great deal of power. And the Secretary of HHS has a great deal of responsibility, he said. Governor Sebelius, you have before you a great opportunity for leadership.
Baucus also agreed with Sebelius that health care reform is an urgent priority and one in which she would surely play a pivotal role.
The time for incremental change has passed. It is increasingly difficult to fix the system one step at a time. We cannot add 46 million uninsured to a broken system, he said. But we also cannot bend the growth curve of health spending without covering the uninsured.
He added, This will be hard. We have some rough patches ahead. But we have a duty to try. And I am confident that we can succeed.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, stressed that Sebelius would need to work with the GOP to accomplish lasting reforms.
Doing nothing should not be not an option. But as with most significant undertakings, the devil is in the details, he said. If we work together, we can reform our health care system to solve the problems we face with cost, quality and access.
Grassley also urged Sebelius not to use a parliamentary maneuver known as budget reconciliation to enact health care reform with a simple majority in the Senate rather than under normal order, in which a proposal could need 60 votes to overcome procedural roadblocks.
Republicans and some moderate Democrats are opposed to the maneuver because it would weaken their influence in shaping the final proposal, potentially resulting in a more sweeping approach than would be achieved otherwise.
Everyone agrees that health reform must be done on a bipartisan basis. Reconciliation is instead a partisan exercise that is not an appropriate vehicle for 'real' health care reform, Grassley said.
Sebelius was generally well received by the committee, and the recent revelation that she had failed to pay, until recently, $7,000 in back taxes over three years went largely without comment.
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